It was recently put to me that my picture of God is too small. On the one hand I can deny that charge quite easily. My God as a non-theist is nothing. The only people who have a God as large as mine are the pantheists who worship everything. After all every Buddhist knows that the only thing as large as everything is nothing –the two being complimentary sides of the same concept. I’m not being facetious here. Both Buddhists (and Daoists even more so) make a lot of the smallness of particular Gods in comparison to emptiness or the dao.
The accusation however was not about the non-God (no-thing) I profess to actually believe in. What was being referred to by the smallness of my God was the smallness of my imagined Divine being. I actually consider it a very valid (though incorrect) criticism. It’s a fair question as to whether it’s true that my picture of God is too small even though I don’t believe in them. I agree that any answer as to whether or not you think God exists is less important than who would you worship as God if you believed they existed. Whether you believe God exists is after all a matter of your experience (hopefully). What you consider God is a matter of your values and to me much more interesting.
I’m also more than happy to respond to the question as I particularly find the idea of worshipping a small god fascinating. I’ve been wondering a lot about it lately. What if your God couldn’t kick all the other Gods arses? What if they didn’t control the universe and everything that went down? What if they couldn’t make people believe in them, or decide who didn’t? But they were still your God.
Is that even possible? Can we imagine size (which I equate, perhaps foolishly, with power and majesty) ever not being a defining characteristic of God? I sometimes feel that I labour under a version of God largely determined by the Christian Reformation. This God can’t be assessed morally by mere humanity. This God is good but they aren’t known by that Goodness because humanity in its depravity can’t recognize Goodness reliably enough to find God by it. Instead this God is known by their might and by might I’m talking off-the-charts might; omnipotence, complete control over everything, absolute sovereignty. In brief this is a God known by their power whose goodness is a matter of faith. They are God only because of their size.
What if we reversed that? What if we had a God who was known by their goodness but whose power was a matter of faith. This is our small god. They are what we might consider God if we were content with small. What would such a God look like?
Firstly let’s consider the following prayer,
I know you cannot prevent my enemies from harming me.
I accept that bad things will still happen despite you.
God, I hope I can bear when bad things happens to those I love as well
And you cannot save them
I shall remain faithful to you
I shall not turn to other Gods who can protect me.
I shall not even turn to other Gods who can protect those I love.
Although you cannot make me I will worship you, my God,
This prayer gives a picture of what the worship of a small god might look like. For me the comparison with a commitment to non-violence is obvious though every attempt I have made to write out the connection has been clunky and insuccinct. The connection for me is obvious because I instinctively imagine “turning to a god” to mean putting one’s faith in a method or approach. I think of worshipping a God as a gangster worships his gun or an investor his business acumen or a politician his charm.
When we turn to a God of “size” the method we trust in is violence because violence is essentially about making things happen, about control and about the virtue of power. If we worshipped a small god (deliberate small-g) then we would instead be putting our faith in powerlessness. We would be turning to non-violence.
Now it is possible to be non-violent precisely because you believe in a large God who makes things happen. It is quite possible to repeat “Vengeance is Mine” sayeth the Lord. Here we hand our violent duties up. We refuse violence because to engage in it is to (attempt to) usurp God’s role and we wait patiently for God to kick ass instead.
Similarly we can be non-violent because violence isn’t tactically effective in a particular situation. Consider a discussion about tactics before an anti-logging action. One person may argue against using aggressive tactics because the break-up of peaceful protests on the news will look so bad that public support will swing to their cause and force the logging to stop (whereas aggression would do the opposite). That is an argument which both anti-violence and pro-violence protestors can appreciate.
Both of these essentially strategic rejections of personal violence are not worshipping a small God. I consider them important to mention so that we can put them to one side. There is a deeper commitment to non-violence. This is an active and complete rejection of violence in principle. Sometimes this is thought of in terms of non-action. The Daoists who reject violence take this path. Others have replaced violence with love. This would include Buddhists and of course Christianity.
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5: 9)
“You have heard that it was said: An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, don’t resist him that is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.
If any man would go to law with you and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.
Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.
Give to him who asks you and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said: You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy; But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Put up your sword back into its place, for all those who take the sword will die by the sword” (Mathew 26:52)
A common soundbite is how deeply confusing Jesus as God was to the 1st century. Here was a weak God who couldn’t stop his own arrest, couldn’t overthrow the Roman oppressors, or protect his temple, got hungry, tired and hurt. Heck, they got dead. What kind of God was that?
The soundbite continues that the Jews failed to recognise their messiah because they were looking for a militaristic God who would change the world forcefully. The idea that a God wouldn’t or couldn’t kick arse was insane – size effectively equalling Godhood.
Strangely evangelical Christianity seems to be back in the same place it places 1st century Judaism. The evangelical Christian looks forward to the strong image of the returning God presented by Revelation rather than backwards to a Gospel God who didn’t make Empire. This Revelation Jesus is the fantastic God who kicks arse. They are the same hopefully militaristic, world changing messiah that the soundbite above attributes to the hopes of first century Jews. Basically if we understand The Revelation of John even semi-literally we have a very different attitude to violence, to power and to making things happen than the Gospels give us.
Jack Caputo is a theologian who illustrates this point brilliantly. He describes the Christian Gospel with Revelation as “violence deferred”; The cross is not God rejecting violence but God suspending its use until the end times. In fact the only way to avoid the violence of our eventual punishment is to enter into the symbolic rescue of the cross. This in effect makes the cross violent. We are being invited to be grateful to Jesus for saving us but at the same time the invitation is written on a baseball bat (or a horse’s head in our bed). And we can rest assured that Jesus is only sparing Roman rule (indeed any alternative rule) for a little while.
It would be cute for me to conclude that the evangelicals have got it wrong and that Christianity is indeed the worship of a small or weak god. It would make a neat rejoinder to the accusation that began this piece (which came from a Christian). When discussing this idea with non-christians they have often jumped to this conclusion without my mentioning Christianity at all. Tolstoy, whose The Law of Love and the Law of Violence I am currently reading would agree with them. He makes a great case that Christianity is love in the place of violence without exception.
I’m not sure I agree though. I think God’s powerful return is deeply imbedded in Christianity. I think you can make a case that Christianity should evolve into something non-apocalyptic (it’s been two thousand years after all) and that it must go beyond understanding the atonement inside first century concepts of justice. I just don’t know if it’s fair to say that’s what Christianity is just because that’s what I might think it should be. I think that kind of claim is a type of linguistic violence.
So what about me though. Do I worship a small god? My own attitude to violence is an ambivalent one. I have received violence from the state and it was both the uncivilised boot to the head and the civilised false charges and a court date. I know that violence can occur explosively particularly if your skin is darker and your accent thicker or you mess with people’s ideas about gender but also even when those things don’t apply. I know it can make no sense.
I also know we live in a world where violence lurks at the end of many conversations. Certainly I have been a resource gate-keeper and a key-twirler in my employment in social services. Sometimes it’s been my call that’s led to someone being evicted from a housing or detox program. Ultimately I’ve called the cops to do my violence for me if conversation doesn’t work. Only by kidding myself that I am only what my own hands and feet do can I pretend this is non-violent. The possibility of that phone call and my relative power in making it permeate my interactions with “clients” or “residents” at all times. Honestly the threat of violence is distant but still present in every conversation about cleaning up your own mess or attending a group meeting that I’ve had.
Lastly I’m aware that I am fairly articulate and that this articulation can be experienced as violence to people without it. There are definitely rhetorical “tricks” that are deceptive. Equally definitely there are rhetorical “sledgehammers” which are a kind of violence. Sure they don’t threaten life and limb but they try and make things happen conceptually that are inescapable. I narrowly avoided one when I refused to say Christianity is what I think it should be.
I certainly didn’t enjoy receiving violence and I feel uncomfortable wielding it (directly, via the state or even in language). However I am not prepared to completely reject it. I am scared for my family almost every day. I get angry at bullies and would rather get between them and their next victim with all the force I need to stop them. On the conversational level I am tired of tolerating homophobic and sexist drivel that hides behind claims of “separate but equal”. I want to slap it down. Really, really honestly I want and feel I need violence. I care about results too much in some regards to throw away the certainty of outcome that violence offers.
Quite frankly I am too frightened to really say the prayer in this blog. I can see myself turning from a God who can’t help me to methods which can. I admire those who are braver – people like Ghandi and Tolstoy and Oscar Romero who remained with non-violence no matter what. Maybe I will get there one day but I’m not there yet. I am just not brave enough to worship a small god.